French Polish

A long time ago, I worked in a restoration shop that did all the work required by several well-known antique dealers in NYC, and sometimes carried out assignments for the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As you might expect, many of the pieces were very valuable. Chippendale tables, Heppelwhite bureaus, Adams settees. If it was British and from the 16th (I worked on an Early Jacobean chest that was nearly 400 years old), 17th or 18th century we saw it go through the shop.
  • Woods Used: curly anigre, holly, black palm
  • Size: 8" x 11" x 17"
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I really didn’t know much about restoration, probably had been hired by the owner of the shop, a curmudgeon named John T., because I was young, would work (very) cheap, could easily be bossed around, and was dying to learn about “traditional” woodworking. John was a hateful English anti-semite (he once told me how he wished Hitler had "finished the job"), whose nickname for me was “a**hole”, and who found some weird, sadistic enjoyment in taking everything on my bench and flinging it all to the floor, because I was wrong or slow or something. Just a mean reeling drunk, crude and ignorant, desperately grasping for a semblance of "class"

But he did know a great deal about antique restoration, boasting that he had worked at London's Victoria & Albert musuem. Evidently he was considered a master of the trade. I decided to spend a short time enduring his misanthropy in order to learn something about that trade. About the “traditional” ways of working wood.

It was a rough experience, but I learned a lot. Restoration shops are quiet, contemplative places (when John  wasn’t drunk and bellowing) because you can’t really use machines too much - they’d leave marks indicating this century - not a good thing when you're working on a piece from the Elizabethan period. Work would be done by hand, the other guys were friendly and taught me various techniques, and there was a certain charm to having lunch amidst furniture worth tens of thousands of dollars, upended, in various states of disrepair, awaiting their turn at the bench. Eating my tuna fish sandwich, feet up on a Chippendale table worth more than I was going to make that year, was weirdly glamourous.

One of those "other guys", a fellow named Victor, was the finisher, which means he was very important, since his was the last hand to touch a piece. It was his eye that would determine whether the restoration was successful, and it always was. He was Hungarian; he knew a lot: Just how to whack a cabinet with the ring of keys to emulate wear, how much "pig's blood" (he said it was "pig's blood"; who was I to challenge his words?) to add to the weird concoctions he made to create aged color. And he always worked with a cigarettee dangling from his lips. When applying french polish he would sway side to side as his hand landed, swept across the surface, took off, but the ash never dropped from the cigarette tip, somehow. I don't know how he did that.

Once in a while he would attempt to show me how french polish is applied and I would attempt to understand. When I'd ask him how to know when to move from one stage of the finish to another (it has stages) he'd just shake his head and say "Use your eyes, Steve, use your eyes..." I started to see what he meant - you have to depend on your own sensibility - but didn't have time to practice. I did gain, however, an appreciation of how beautiful a finish it is. So when I was planning this display cabinet I thought a french polish would be just right.

But where to learn? I've always had the confidence that I can learn anything. A quick study. Luckily, I found "The Art of Lutherie", a site created by Tom Bills, who makes gorgeous guitars - always finished with french polish. He has a video course comprised of multiple short segments in which he demonstrates his methods. The videos are very well shot, he has an affable manner and delivery, and, if you take the time to learn and experiment with his methods, you can, at the very least, accomplish a satisfactory finish. So that's what I did. Thanks, Tom. Victor would be...encouraged.

So I guess my little sojourn at the restoration shop bore some fruit. I learned something about the tradition of woodworking, where it was real and where I had imagined it. I learned that Chippendale furniture was made in a factory of 400 workers, in what was almost an assembly line, cutters, joiners, carvers, finishers all taking the turns on the pieces that were being created for British aristocracy. I learned that furniture of this type, pieces now 200-300 years old, had been restored on average every 75 years, so inside every piece there was a narrative, hands across the years, fixing, readjusting, rebuilding, refinishing. Master, journeyman, apprentice, leaving their signatures, inventive joinery, thoughtful, skilled handcraft, and, more often than you might imagine, banged-in nails and careless, ill-advised alterations. You could see and feel the continuity of endeavor and I was there adding my little contribution (for better or worse) to the procession.

And I learned about French Polish, from Victor, who instructed me to use my eyes...